How I Teach…Iambic Pentameter

I want to let you know how I teach Iambic Pentameter, in the hope that:

  1. You can tell me how to improve my teaching of Iambic Pentameter
  2. It provides you with some ideas as to how you might want to teach Iambic Pentameter

 

Before I explain how I teach Iambic Pentameter, it’s first useful to explain what iambic pentameter is, and why I teach it.

What?

Iambic Pentameter is a line of poetry made up of 5 iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot made up of two syllables of which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. Therefore, a line of iambic pentameter is a line of poetry consisting of 10 syllables following the pattern:

Unstressed (u) Stressed (/) Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed

As in:

 U       \      U        \      U    \    U     \        U   \

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Why do I teach it?

I teach iambic pentameter for two reasons. Primarily, I think an understanding of iambic pentameter enables students to better analyse Shakespeare. Secondly, I think an understanding of iambic pentameter can lead to a greater appreciation of the poetry or verse as a construct- something thought about and built, rather than something that magically appears.

How do I teach it

I begin by explaining to students that what we’re about to learn is difficult. And that, finding this difficult is not only natural, but an indicator that they’re learning something. I also tell them that it is my responsibility, as much as theirs, to revisit this throughout the weeks that follow, so as to ensure full understanding.

I begin by explaining the concept of syllables. I will use phrases such as , ‘The English Language is syllabic. This means that its words are made up of syllables.’ The definition of ‘syllable’ is a tricky one and I don’t get too hung up on this. I go for a student-friendly definition which is a little abstract, but works with examples: ‘A syllable is  a beat in a word. “Matthew” for example, has two beats: “Math” and “Hew”. At this point I’ll ask students to work out how many syllables are in their full names. I’ll also ask them to work out the number of syllables in words such as ‘Universal’, ‘Swimming’, and ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’.

Once students know what syllables are, I write the following word on the board:

Rebel.

I’ll ask students to pronounce it, and they’ll generally all pronounce the noun version of the word (REB-el). Then, I’ll ask students what rebels do, and point at the word on the board as I do so. They’ll then give me the verb version of the word (re-BEL). I’ll repeat this process for the word ‘Present’ (gift) and ‘Present’ (show, provide). Once I’ve done this, I’ll explain that although the words are the same, the thing that changes the meaning, is the stress we put on syllables: ‘In the noun version of the word “Rebel”, we put greater stress on the first syllable. “Reb”-“El”.’ As I do this, I’ll raise my hand for the stressed first syllable, and lower it as I pronounce the second. I’ll reverse the process for the verb version, and do the same again for ‘Present’.

I’ll then pick a student with a two-syllable first name in the class and I’ll ask the whole class where the stress falls. Generally, in western names, the stressed syllable is always the initial one. I’ll explain that if it wasn’t, we’d start to sound like French. I’d do a mock French accent as I explain the differences between ‘Amy’ and ‘Ai-MEE’.

At this stage, the kids should know a) that the English language is syllabic and b) that syllables are either stressed or unstressed.

Next, I tell kids what an iamb is. I’ll explain that an iamb is what’s known as a foot. I’ll explain that  an iamb has two points (like the pad and heel of a foot). Normally, I stand on a table at this point and watch everybody see my the soft tread of my heel hitting the table’s surface, followed by the rest of my weight following through as my pad (?) hits the table. I’m careful to make the second hit more forceful than the first. I then tell kids that an iamb is:

  • A unit of two syllables…
  • Of which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed.

I’ll provide examples of iambic words such as:

BeWARE

ComPARE

DeSERVE

Then, I’ll say these words with the reversed stress pattern. It helps the kids get it, I find.

Then, I’ll write the beginnings of a famous line of Shakespeare and explain that it is iambic:

To be or not to be? That is the question.

I’ll say this aloud, emphasising the unstressed and stressed beats as I do so, by adjusting the volume of my voice: louder for stressed beats; quieter for unstressed. I will then explain that many actors, because they don’t have a grasp of iambic pentameter. They’ll deliver the line thusly:

To be or not to be? That is the question.

I’ll explain that actually iambic pentameter means that it should be pronounced like this:

To be or not to be? That is the question?

I’ll also show them this clip to help further explain the importance of stressed and unstressed beats:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEs8rK5Cqt8

I’ll ask students to tell me who they think has it pronounced most correctly, according to the ‘rules’ of iambic pentameter (I think it’s Prince Charles).

Right, now, I’ll ask students to look at the phrase IAMBIC PENTAMETER. We’ll analyse it and I’ll break it down into:

  • IAMBIC (containing iambs)
  • PENT (5)
  • METER (Rhythm)

That is, a rhythm containing 5 iambs. I’ll ask them how many syllables there are then, in one line of iambic pentameter. This is the stage at which you realise who has got it and who hasn’t. Most won’t have it. So repeat some stuff.

I’ll explain that iambic pentameter is a type of poetry. It’s poetry, even if it doesn’t rhyme, because it follows a metrical structure.

Now, it’s the time to explain why Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter. I discuss a number of theories:

  • It mimics ordinary human speech
  • It resonates with us because it mimics the beat of life – our heartbeats

I explain that I think these explanations are rubbish, even though I might be wrong. I explain that lines of iambic pentameter are just nice to listen to. The fact that they begin with a nice soft, unstressed beat, is soothing and less aggressive than if someone spoke to us (or the audience, or a loved one) beginning always with stressed beats.

Then I explain the most important thing about iambic pentameter:

Iambic Pentameter isn’t interesting when it’s there. It’s more interesting when it’s not there.

Allow me to explain: generally, it’s characters of high status or power who speak in iambic pentameter. Lady Macbeth, for example, speaks in iambic pentameter. Characters of low status or power, such as servants, nurses and porters, speak in prose.

At this point I’ll illustrate the differences between prose and verse by asking students to look at the differences themselves. I’ll normally direct them to the Porter’s speech in Macbeth, and ask them to compare it with verse spoken by the Macbeths in the previous scene.

Once students know what prose is, I’ll direct them to the sleepwalking scene. Lady Macbeth, now insane with guilt over her part in Duncan’s’ death, now speaks in prose. I’ll ask students why they think that is: it’s because Lady Macbeth has fallen from grace. Shakespeare now deprives her of the eloquence her power used to grant her. It’s his way of showing us that Lady Macbeth is now powerless. She can no longer boast of ‘the valour of [her] tongue’; instead she must be content with monosyllabic splutterings of ‘O! O! O!’

Finally, one more thing. I like this from Macbeth:

Stars hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires.

I like the emphasis. I like the fact that black is stressed and light isn’t. I’ll encourage students to see the same.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

14 thoughts on “How I Teach…Iambic Pentameter”

  1. I love your approach. My own blog is devoted to the study of meter in Shakespeare’s work (and how it interacts with every other aspect of the verse), and I actually use the same two words, “rebel” and “present”, to illustrate stress!

    In regards to why Shakespeare (and his fellow dramatists) employed iambic pentameter, I feel the key issue is flexibility.

    First, there’s the iambic rhythm – and, yes, I agree, opening with an unstressed syllable produces a softer, gliding, wave-like effect. The trochaic DUM-di rhythm tends to produce an abrupt, tumbling effect. Also, the two-syllable iamb is more subtle and malleable than the three-syllable anapest (di-di-DUM): the extra run-up of two light syllables lends greater force and emphasis to the beats. If the iambic rhythm is comparable to the lapping of the waves on the sea, the anapestic rhythm is perhaps more like the waves crashing against a wall during a storm: it’s a very strong, insistent, imposing rhythm.

    Then there’s the length. The five beats of the pentameter line provide optimum flexibility: shorter lines have a more insistent rhythm, and longer lines tend to break down into component parts – the six beat hexameter line, for instance, has a tendency to break into two halves of three beats each. The fact that the pentameter line has an odd number of beats, and therefore can’t split in half, is part of the reason for its flexibility.

    I wonder if it might be interesting for your students to compare the iambic pentameter verse with the shorter meters of the songs and chants in Shakespeare’s plays – for instance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth. With the “Double, double, toil and trouble” chant, for example, you have both the shorter, more insistent 4-beat line, and the abrupt, trochaic DUM-di rhythm.

    The other really interesting thing about iambic meters is that they can accommodate a wider array of metrical variation: under certain conditions, the stress level of two adjacent syllables can be SWAPPED, creating a displaced beat! A beat can be either pulled back a space, producing a swinging “DUM-di-di-DUM” pattern, or pushed forward a space, producing an emphatic “di-di-DUM-DUM” pattern. This is something I investigate in detail in one of my posts (on “radical variations”), and it’s a feature of iambic meter that is not widely recognised (especially that beats can be pushed forward).

    In Hamlet’s line, “…THAT is the QUEStion” is a legitimate reading: the beat is pulled back from “IS” to “THAT” (and your reading is also legitimate, and I think I favour it: again, that’s something I explore in one of my posts – on “Simple variations and feminine endings”).

    When a beat is pulled back, it is most often at the beginning of the line (e.g. “NOW is the WINter of our DISconTENT”; and you can see in this line how the light or non-existent stress on the beat syllable “of” creates extra lift and pace: DUM-di-di-DUM-di-di-di-DUM…. The line just FLIES along!). Though it may be adding an extra layer of complexity, this “DUM-di-di-DUM” pattern at the opening of a line is such a common variation that I feel it might be worth introducing your students to it.

    Anyway, I hope I’ve managed to make this an interesting and useful response!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve had a few more thoughts which might be useful.

        Firstly, if you wanted to give your students an example of how following the iambic rhythm (instead of reading the verse as prose) can affect the tone of the words, an excellent example occurs in The Merchant of Venice when Shylock appears to berate Antonio for the fact that he is now seeking to borrow money of him after having treated him with such contempt:-

        “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
        And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
        And all for use of that which is mine own.
        Well then, it now appears you need my help:
        Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
        ‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
        You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
        And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
        Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
        What should I say to you?…”

        The really interesting line here is:

        “Go to, then; you come to me and you say”

        Most people who are not familiar with the importance of following the iambic rhythm will place an emphasis on “come” and “me”:

        “GO TO, then; you COME to ME and you SAY”

        Which is in no way metrical.

        However, if we follow the iambic rhythm, the emphasis falls on the rhyming words “you” and “to”:

        “GO TO, then; YOU come TO me AND you SAY”

        This initial emphasis on “YOU” sets the tone for the subsequent pointed, accusatory emphases on the same word:

        “…YOU say SO;
        YOU, that did VOID your RHEUM uPON my BEARD”

        “WHAT should i SAY to YOU?…”

        – before shifting the focus back onto himself with an emphasis on “I”:

        “…Shall I bend LOW”

        And in emphasising the second “to”, Shakespeare is very cleverly having Shylock both play on his first use of that word (“GO TO, then…”), and reinforce the pointedness of his accusatory “you” through rhyme (“…YOU come TO me…”).

        Secondly, it might engage your students’ interest to learn that iambic pentameter lends itself very well to rap! There’s even a company called “The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company”: http://www.hiphopshakespeare.com/

        I also provide a link in my introductory blog post to a video of Akala delivering a rap of Sonnet 18.

        Thirdly, in regards to the principle of shifting a beat forwards or backwards by swapping the stress level of two adjacent syllables, there are two consecutive lines in the poem by Alexander Pope that I quote from at the end of my Introduction that illustrate this principle with particular clarity:

        “Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
        And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;”

        In both lines, the first beat is displaced.

        In the first line, the beat is pulled back a space: DUM-di-di-DUM, “SOFT is the STRAIN…”. In this instance, the swinging movement produces an enchantingly lilting effect (in contrast to the opening line of Richard III – “NOW is the WINter…” – in which the swinging movement contributes to the vigour and energy of the line. This is an example of how the same metrical patterning can produce different effects, depending on the context).

        And in the second line, the beat is pushed forward a space: di-di-DUM-DUM, “And the SMOOTH STREAM…”. In this case, the two light syllables running into two heavy syllables, combined with the alliteration and long vowels of “SMOOTH STREAM”, produces a plateau that aurally mimics the stream. (Incidentally, meter was frequently referred to as “numbers” indicating the essentially mathematical quality of meter, with its syllable and beat counts. Thus we have the “smooth stream” compared to “smoother numbers”!).

        Because the displaced beats are at the openings of adjacent lines, they’re very easy to compare, so if you introduced this passage to your students at some stage (and it’s a fun passage to read, and very relevant, given that it’s a poem ABOUT the writing of metered verse) and pointed out the openings to these two lines, it might help them begin to get to grips with the principle of displaced beats.

        Also, the FINAL line would introduce them to the hexameter:

        “Flies O’ER th’ unBENDing CORN, and SKIMS aLONG the MAIN.”

        It also perfectly illustrates how the hexameter line often breaks into two halves of three beats each. In this case, they describe the two halves of a journey. Shakespeare peppered his plays with the occasional hexameter, and usually for the sake of this very effect: the second half of the line would either answer or build on the first half. This is also why hexameters lend themselves particularly well to shared lines (where one character completes a line that another character started). A fantastic example of shared hexameter lines occurs when Richard woos Lady Anne, and it’s a passage I explore in “Part 3” of my series of blog posts on “Iambic Pentameter & the Principles of Metrical Variation”. It’s a passage your students might really have fun with!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Whilst we do all the subject terminology stuff, to express what we find to a suitably academic level, I tend to work on the fairly simple basis that patterns equal emotional control. Disruptions to metrical patterns will, 99% of the time, be deliberate signals on the writer’s part of emotional disruption …

    Like

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